Faith-Based Organisations and Social Policy in Melanesia

By Hassall, Graham | Australian Journal of Social Issues, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview
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Faith-Based Organisations and Social Policy in Melanesia

Hassall, Graham, Australian Journal of Social Issues


Religious beliefs and actors have made substantial contributions to the island states of the Pacific, which are best understood in the context of the region's unique geography, cultures and histories. Contemporary faith-based organisations (FBOs) in the Melanesian societies of Fiji, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea--whose populations were amongst the last in the world to receive Christian missions and European colonisers--include organised churches, formalised service providers, social networks, accredited non-governmental organisations (NGOs), collaborative entities, and even business and media divisions, which play multiple complementary and/or contradictory roles as promoters of the common interest and as protectors of sectarian interests. These tensions between 'public good' activities and particularistic needs create a 'fault line' in the articulation and implementation of effective social policy outcomes. Due to the manner in which the Melanesian states evolved, as explained in brief below, contemporary governments seek effective partnerships with FBOs for programme and service delivery at a community level whilst also seeking more effective integration of policy at a national level. However, whilst the close association between FBOs and social policy programmes in the Melanesian states is appreciated by all concerned, the low rate of progress with human development indicators, and with the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, highlights the need to find more effective approaches to agenda-setting, policy articulation and implementation. Whilst acknowledging the utility of theoretic perspectives on the role of religion in influencing the public policy settings of contemporary nation states, this paper seeks to describe the historic, cultural and constitutional dimensions to this relationship in the context of Melanesia rather than to assess whether the Melanesian context affirms or negates theoretic perspectives generated in other parts of the world.

The Melanesian context

The Melanesian people occupy thousands of islands in the southwest Pacific which in modern times comprise the independent nation-states of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji, as well as the Special Collectivity (formerly French Overseas Territory) of New Caledonia. The populations of these states are relatively small, from 273,074 in New Caledonia to approximately seven million in Papua New Guinea. (1) The United Nations classifies the Melanesian states as either medium or less developed countries. Some are also in the category of 'small island developing states' (UNOHRLLS no date).

The Human Development Report for 2011 places two Melanesian countries amongst those categorised as having 'medium human development' (Fiji is ranked 100th and Vanuatu 125th), and two as having 'low human development' (Solomon Islands is ranked 142nd and Papua New Guinea 153rd). All four of these countries have slipped down the ladder of human development indicator (HDI) performance (UNDP 2012). Agencies such as the Asian Development Bank frequently report low rates of economic growth in Pacific Island countries, and in some cases, economic decline (ADB 2011: xv).

Although these communities share ethnic similarities they also exhibit significant diversity in language and custom. With the exception of Fiji, where chiefly authority is more Polynesian (that is, hereditary), leadership elsewhere in Melanesia was mostly exercised by chiefs selected by communities on the basis of ability and achievement. Prior to the modern period, Melanesian societies were 'welfare states', which valued reciprocity and the redistribution of wealth and resources amongst one's clan. There were trade links with external communities, but there were often also rigid boundaries to social and political relationships. Roles for males and females, and for young and old, were clearly defined and for the most part patriarchal.

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